AMHERST — While opposition to gun legislation in this year’s General Assembly session caused an uproar among many Amherst County residents — who voiced opposition during a few county meetings recently — Amherst town officials have passed a resolution declaring Amherst a “Constitutional Town.”
Amherst Town Council unanimously approved the document during its March 11 meeting stating the council expresses its commitment by any and all legal means to respect, uphold and enforce the Second Amendment. Council urges the Virginia General Assembly, the U.S. Congress and all federal and state agencies “vigilantly to preserve, uphold, and protect the rights of the citizens to keep and bear arms.”
Though no specific legislation was identified, the resolution pointed to concerns of “unconstitutional” measures to infringe on gun owners’ rights. Council did not discuss the resolution during the meeting.
“The Town Council expresses its commitment to oppose unconstitutional and unlawful legislation and proposed restrictions that infringe upon the right of its citizens to keep and bear arms, or which have the tendency to infringe upon or place additional burdens on the right of law-abiding citizens to bear arms, through any and all legal means, as may be expedient, including without limitation, court action ...” the resolution states.
Virginia has become the epicenter of the nation’s gun debate after Democrats took full control of the General Assembly last year on an aggressive gun control platform. Gov. Ralph Northam had a majority of eight gun-control measures passed this year, but some of them were watered down during the recently concluded General Assembly session.
The legislation includes a red flag bill to allow authorities to temporarily take guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others, and legislation giving local governments more authority to ban guns in public places. Lawmakers also approved legislation requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to police and to toughen the penalty for leaving a loaded, unsecured firearm in a reckless manner that endangers a child.
A bill to ban the sale of assault weapons, which received the biggest pushback from gun owners, failed to pass the Senate.
More than 100 counties, cities and towns in Virginia, including Amherst County, declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries in recent months.
Councilwoman advocates for town charter change on expelling members
During a council comments portion of the meeting, Councilwoman Janice Wheaton formally asked for council to “join the community” in amending the town’s charter to strip council of power to expel a member.
“I would like council to support me in working with the town manager to facilitate this measure,” Wheaton said.
Wheaton, first elected in November 2018, was removed from office during a July 2019 meeting by a 4-1 vote through a provision in the town’s charter. Town officials haven’t disclosed a specific reason for the expulsion said the difficult decision, which followed a closed session discussion, came after much thought and was done in the town’s best interests.
In November, Wheaton won reelection to the at-large seat with more than 60% of the vote and retook her seat a week later. Mayor Dwayne Tuggle said during the meeting if she’s requesting the town charter amendment she needs to do the “homework” in getting through the proper town process.
A charter amendment would require the entire council to petition the Virginia General Assembly for approval. Tuggle pointed out the most recent charter amendment — to stagger election terms of council members — took nearly a year to complete and the town is at the mercy of the state legislature’s timing.
“This is a drawn-out process,” Tuggle said.
A potential charter amendment on the topic would include a public hearing if the entire council decides to move the process to that point in the future.
Sewer improvement project’s funding proposal advancing
Town Manager Sara Carter shared a funding change for a planned project to upgrade and replace a portion of the town’s sewer infrastructure. The previous amounts targeted for the work was $4.8 million, which mostly is covered from a loan and grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Under the previous plan, the gap for the project was at $1.3 million, but Carter said a slight increase in the loan amount and a $938,000 increase in the planned grant will bridge the funding gap for the overall $5.8 million project. The town is contributing $387,500 to the needed work.
Carter said the town’s priority was to not raise rates on water and sewer customers, and the plan in place doesn’t do so. A public hearing on the funding plan for the project is set for council’s April 8 meeting.
Leash law decision nearing
Council held a public hearing on a potential leash law for the town and an ordinance on dogs running at large. Debbie Shrader was the only resident to speak at the hearing and said she felt proposed language about knowingly or willfully allowing dogs to urinate on private property was an overreach and questioned how it would be enforced.
During discussion after the hearing, council agreed to nix the language pertaining to urination. “That would be really hard to enforce,” Tuggle said.
Carter said the town has had a long-running discussion about dogs running at large and the effectiveness of a leash law. The majority of feedback in an online survey on the topic shows broad support for a leash law, but Carter said a town committee worked hard to come up with an ordinance that wouldn’t create enforcement hardships for the animal control staff at the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office. A violation of the potential ordinance would lead to a Class 4 misdemeanor and a $50 fine.
Council is expected to vote on the proposed ordinance during its April 8 meeting.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.